“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein
Genius, commonly defined as “extraordinary intellectual and creative power”, is a term we probably wouldn’t use to describe ourselves or our children. We may believe we’re smart or talented, but most of us don’t think we’re all that extraordinary. Even if we are “a person who has an exceptionally high intelligence quotient, typically above 140”, we don’t typically imagine ourselves geniuses.
Far more exciting and productive is the definition of genius that educator Rick Ackerly subscribes to in an inspiring and informative book I highly recommend, The Genius in Every Child: Encouraging Character, Curiosity, and Creativity in Children. His perception of genius: “…a great science teacher I know called it ‘the teacher within,’ and we all have it. According to James Hillman and Thomas Moore, it goes by many names: soul, muse, calling, psyche, and destiny. It is the you that is becoming. It is our inner author and the source of our authority in the world.”
Recognizing genius as our child’s unique essence leads us to approach parenting as an opportunity to discover, explore and encourage this “teacher within.” The sparks are already there. Our job is to figure out how and when to stoke the flames, and when to let them be. Mostly, it’s about letting them be.
We kindle genius by fostering our child’s innate desire to explore and experience her world independently whenever possible. What begins when an infant has the opportunity to choose to spend a few moments gazing peacefully at patterns of light on a wall, clouds in the sky, or a crack in the ceiling later becomes a toddler discovering a unique use for a puzzle – stacking the pieces instead of fitting them — no one interrupting to show him what he ‘should’ be doing.
Here are more ways to encourage genius…
Make boredom a friend, not an enemy.
Offering our children crafts, art projects and science kits, games and other activities, entertaining them with songs, books and outings encourages creativity (and can be precious time together), but our children are most creative and expressive when they come up with ideas all on their own. And although creative ideas sometimes come to us while we’re busy, they usually materialize in a relaxed, but not always comfortable, “bored” state in between activities. If adult-initiated activities are too close together, or passive entertainment like TV is always on hand to fill the void, children don’t have enough “blank” time and brain space to hone their inventive powers.
Infant specialist Magda Gerber didn’t believe it possible for babies to be bored unless they were conditioned to rely on entertainment and stimulation. She believed that what parents perceive as boredom is usually tiredness or other discomfort (and I’ve found this to be the case with my own children) and should be responded to as such. She taught parents to provide a fertile ground for creativity by 1) providing plenty of time for uninterrupted, independent play each day with simple, versatile, open-ended toys and materials; and 2) turning off the TV, at least for the first few years.
Less is more creative — thinking inside the box.
I recently had the pleasure of lunch with a highly creative couple, Lilly Bright and Evan Cole, RIE parents with a young toddler. The conversation soon turned to one of my favorite subjects, children and play. Evan shared memories of a childhood mostly spent at his father’s pharmacy occupying himself for hours with nothing but empty boxes. When I asked if he thought there was a link between his rather minimalist, but highly imaginative childhood play experiences and his career choices, Evan (creator of two hugely successful home design stores) admitted, “I like making something out of nothing.”
I’m certainly not advocating doing away with toys. But our fascinating human tendency to create more and engage longer with less is something to keep in mind. The water balloon “babies” my sisters spent hours imagining stories with in the neighbor’s pool; the games like “Shoes”, one of many my sisters and I invented, which entailed struggling to be the first to find a matching pair of shoes among those hidden in my mother’s bedroom in the dark; the rolls of craft paper an artist acquaintance described entertaining herself with all day as a child, not just creating paintings and drawings, but making hats, skirts and scarves… These are all examples of genius at work.
Wait (the hardest part).
Encouraging genius means trusting, which often means waiting instead of directing, helping or teaching — talking a “bored” baby through the few moments of griping she has before switching gears and finding something new to engage her interest; waiting while our toddler repeatedly attempts to climb up and down the porch step, allowing him to discover how to do it rather than showing him. It’s waiting for an older child to express an interest in tennis lessons before we sign her up. When we go ahead and make decisions for our children in these situations, we risk taking their attention away from the guidance of an inner voice, and train them to be followers rather than original thinkers.
As Magda Gerber advised, “Be careful what you teach the child, you may interfere with what he is learning.”
In child we trust.
As their interests and talents manifest themselves, our children need our whole-hearted support and encouragement to continue to follow their inner guide, keep doing what they love. Our children’s dreams and aspirations may seem illogical, impractical or impossible, but to encourage genius we must trust them anyway.
Like many children, my daughter wanted to hold her parents’ camera and take pictures. So, on a camping trip with my husband at age 7, she asked and he said yes. Rather than photograph the people or beautiful scenery, she aimed her camera towards the ground and photographed rocks in a small stream. These turned out to be the most interesting photos of the trip, and the beginning of an unflagging interest in photography. A few years ago when she was 14, a friend took her photos to the owner of Diesel, A Bookstore who was impressed enough to invite her to exhibit them on his walls. We had them printed on canvas, and several were sold (including the one above) for hundreds of dollars each. We were flabbergasted.
Trust the genius in your kids. They’re onto something.